Sunday, July 9, 2017

Writing to the Point by Algis Budrys

Writing to the PointWriting to the Point by Algis Budrys

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another classic book about writing, by someone who was well known in the mid- to late-twentieth century as a writer, an editor, and a writing teacher. Algis Budrys, back when he was editing Tomorrow magazine, gave me one of my very best rejections ever, back when I was completely unpublished, so I've always been rather fond of him, despite having never met him. :)

Table of Contents:

Chapter One: The Basic Basics
Chapter Two: The Basics
Chapter Three: Sara Jane and What She Means
Chapter Four: The Story and the Manuscript
Chapter Five: Creative Loneliness
Chapter Six: Odd Scraps
Chapter Seven: Agents
Chapter Eight: How to do a Manuscript
Chapter Nine: Review
== Ideas ... How They Work and How to Fix Them
== Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy
== What a Story is

This book is so incredibly basic, that I think you have to actually be rather far along the road of Becoming A Writer before you can really understand it. Not that it's complicated, but rather because it's so simple it's hard to grasp. I remember reading this back in the day, I think I was in my twenties or maybe my early thirties, and most of it just bounced right off me. I mean, okay, there was obviously some good stuff in here, and yes, that sounds right, fine, but... what do you do with it? It was so incredibly contrary to everything I thought I knew about being a good writer back then, that trying to get practical advice out of this book was like trying to grasp fog. It was there, but I couldn't get a hold of it.

Reading it again now, it's not fog anymore, but more like rain or snow. I'm probably still missing a lot, but I can actually catch a couple of good handfuls.

Note that the point of this book is to write fiction that sells. Budrys isn't interested in teaching anyone how to write experimental fiction, or high-end literary fiction that's published in a literary magazine and read by eighty-two people. He's interested in the kind of fiction that some significant number of people will want to read, and hopefully pay some money for. This book was written well before indie publishing became a thing (and the chapter on agents, and some other advice about publishers is extremely out of date), but I think "fiction that sells" to editors who are curating a magazine or similar will also likely sell to individual readers.

Budrys says in the introduction:

I believe that if you do exactly what this book calls for, and do not do anything else, you will sell. If you are already selling, you will improve.

This will be harder than it sounds. You will inevitably try to add things you have learned from other books and instructors, and you may also feel that generally you know more than I teach. Perhaps you do, and perhaps the other books and instructors have valuable things to say. But what will happen is that you will confuse the instruction.


What should you do?

I think you should listen to what I have to say. I think it will help. If you listen to exactly what I have to say, it will help a lot. And you may prove to have a talent for it, as well, which will make things somewhat easier, and somewhat more pleasurable. And if you have a talent for it, you will gradually learn, by yourself, how to bend the rules I give; ultimately you will discover ways of telling stories that have rarely been done before; perhaps never been done before. But you will still cling to the things you first learned in this book, because these are the basics. They can be bent; they cannot be broken.

I think he's right, and I think this is what makes it hard. The basics he describes are so basic, you might keep thinking, as I did back when (and still felt myself doing occasionally during my recent re-read) "But there has to be more to it than that!" No, there really isn't.

This book is rather like an onion, and you start in the center. Chapter One describes what storytelling is, its development through human history, and how a story is essentially structured. Budrys describes seven basic components -- three forming the beginning of the story, three forming the middle, and one for the end.

The beginning has 1) a character, 2) in a context, 3) with a problem.
The middle has 4) an attempt to solve the problem, and 5) a failure, which are repeated a couple of times. (I've heard these described as try/fail cycles.) Then there's 6) which is victory.
The end is 7) the validation, where you let the reader know what it was all about, or assure the reader that what happened was legitimate, and that it is, indeed, all done.

Having read a lot of unpublished stories, in workshops and classes and online and just passing stories around between writers, I've always thought that the number one reason why an otherwise good story fails is that the ending doesn't work. This book explains why -- it's the validation that doesn't work, or is completely missing. And in fact, whenever I read a published short story that doesn't quite work for me at the end (I'm much more likely to keep going on a short that's not quite working for me, hoping the writer will pull it off in the end, than I am a novel), there too, thinking back to the ones I remember, it's usually the validation that didn't do it for me. This concept is definitely worth paying attention to.

At the end of Chapter One, Budrys says, "In the next chapter, we will learn that the manuscript is not the story, that writing is not the reverse of reading, and other useful things, including a demonstration of how the seven parts work. But you have already learned more than enough to get started on your career."

I think he's right, but I also think that, if you get this far, you should keep going. There's a strong feeling of, "Wait, is that it...?" at this point. Chapter Two fleshes out the basic structure, gives an example, and discusses the various parts, along with the other things he mentioned. But still, he's probably right that someone who was willing to take him at his word and do the things he discusses could probably read Chapter One and then go hit the keyboard and practice and be a lot better than they were before.

Chapter Three examines the example story (which is about Sara Jane, mentioned in the TOC), fleshes it out a bit more, improves it some, and basically goes over the seven parts again in more detail, with some focus on developing the validation.

In Chapter Four, he goes back to the idea of the story vs. the manuscript, and discusses how you can imply one or more of the seven parts, without actually showing them in the story, using some cool examples (described) that I need to go look up and read some time. At the end, he talks about novels, and how they're actually constructed from short stories, or are expanded short stories, so learning to write short stories will give you a leg up on writing novels, so you might want to start with shorts, if you want to do both.

At this point, he moves on to other topics.

Chapter Five is about how writing is an essentially lonely profession, and how if you don't spend most of your time by yourself, you're probably not getting much writing done.

Chapter Six is about work habits, setting up a place to write, deciding when you're going to write, and then defending that time from anything that might try to encroach. Once you've been working in your spot for a while, you'll have some stories, and he talks about submitting them. Budrys is of the "Start at the Top" school of market selection; that's definitely one thing I picked up on my first read-through. I've never been shy of sending my work to the best markets first; you shouldn't be either. Budrys says, "Well, as the late John W. Campbell said in relation to his magazine, Astounding, 'How dare you edit for me!'" Meaning, let the editors do their jobs. Your job is to send them stories; their job is to say yes or no.

Chapter Seven is about agents. This is the twenty-first century, so you can skip this one IMO.

Chapter Eight is about manuscript formatting and mailing. Every time I run into another writer who doesn't know how to format their manuscript, I'm amazed all over again. Make sure you get this right. Budrys explains how to do it, although it's a bit out of date, since he was talking about paper manuscripts. What I've heard more recently about formatting is, if a market is old-school enough to demand a paper manuscript, then use old-style formatting -- 10- or 12-pitch Courier, with underlining for italics, the whole nine yards. If you're submitting to a market modern enough to take electronic submissions, then something like Times New Roman is better, at least 12-point, and 14 isn't a bad idea, and italicize your italics.

The advice about mailing is pretty much obsolete, but this made me laugh: "Budrys's First Law of Manuscript Reading says that nothing publishable ever came out of a #10 envelope." I remember hearing editors ranting at conventions or online about writers who stuff a 5K-word short story into a business size envelope, so I guess enough writers did it to make it A Thing among editors.

Chapter Nine is a review of everything the book has previously told you. I read it, and found it worthwhile. Getting everything onto the stage of your mind all at one time has some value, I think. Your brain might work differently.

After Chapter Nine, swiping through to the next page, my tablet took me to the "Before You Go..." page, which isn't actually in the book, but is where they show you the covers of ten other books people who read this book have also bought, and ask you to leave a review. This makes you think the book is done, but it's not. On my tablet, the Appendices start at 64% of the way through, so there's still a lot to read.

I'm not going to go over the appendices in detail, but I do recommend you read them. Budrys is an excellent teacher, his ideas are on point, stated clearly and briefly, and he's just generally worth listening to. The third appendix, "What a Story is," is largely another repetition of the main part of the book. Read it anyway. Maybe mark down on your calendar to come back and reread this appendix every month or two, because this info is so basic and primal that it's still rather watery, and it tends to run out of your hands after a little while. Remind yourself periodically, and maybe take a look to see whether and how much your writing has improved since you first read this book.

If you can't tell, this book has my enthusiastic recommendation. Making allowances for when it was written, this is a pretty awesome book about writing, short and clear and to the point, with the absolute basics stripped down for you. Check it out.


Charles Gramlich said...

My whole thing on Facebook today about backing away had to do with the point about writing being a lonely profession. You really can't have constant interactions with people and get it done. I like Budrys' fiction. Haven't read this but am gonna have a look for it.

Angie said...

Charles -- it's definitely worth a read. [nod] And yeah, making time to write and then defending that time from other people who mostly mean well is probably like half the problem of producing any decent amount of writing. This is not a profession for a social butterfly.